THIS AIN'T THE STRUMMER OF LOVE: A CONVERSATION WITH VINCE WHITE (7/02/07) by Ralph Heibutzki



Few letdowns have felt harsher than the Clash's last album, Cut The Crap (1985), which lead singer Joe Strummer had deemed necessary to purge the “sulking-is-pop-star-ism” excesses of his ex-partner, guitarist Mick Jones. Instead of Peter Howard's percussive thunder came clattering drum machines, while synthed-up slickness and intrusive Oi! choir vocals muzzled Nick Sheppard's and Vince White's snub-nosed guitar fire (the defining element of those never-ending European, UK and US tours of January to June '84).

So what did we get? Not magnificence, surely, just clash shitty rockers – a feeling that Vince knows well: “When I actually got a copy of that record, and put it on my own turntable at home, I just knew the game was up – it was absolutely terrible..”

However, few details seeped out about the Jones-less crusade, certainly not in the group-sanctioned accounts—like Westway To The World. A similar fog extended to the CD reissues, lately broken by inclusion of Cut The Crap's leadoff single, “This Is England,” on The Singles Box Set (2006).

As Billy Bragg once observed, however, “there's two sides to every story,” which leads to my conservation with Vince about his new book, Out Of Control: The Last Days Of The Clash. In 1994, I'd originally interviewed Vince for my own book, Complete Control: A Secret History Of The Clash, a project that refuses to die—like the Jones-less era, it seems. (As the saying goes: “Watch this space.”)

First things first: why now, after 20-odd years?

“I can only answer, 'I don't know, I just felt like doing it,'” Vince responds. “I sensed the idea of writing a book, and it [his Clash experience] seemed like a good place to start.” Armed with an agent, those first slogs through the publishing trenches persuaded Vince to self-publish: “The constant thing I got was, 'Oh, the writing's really great, but we don't think we can compete with [the Strummer biography] Redemption Song.'

Initially, Vince felt reluctant to revisit his experience, thinking that “what I had to say wasn't what anybody wanted to hear,” he laughs. As if that weren't enough, he weighed the impact of Strummer's 2002 death (“People don't like you to speak ill of the dead, you know?”), and the fallout from the breakup (“I thought, 'Well, the public perception is really Cut The Crap, and there's not much I can do about that'”). Yet writing Out Of Control exerted a cathartic effect.

“I tried to take it from a very objective point of view, so it's not like, one long whinge,” Vince laughs. “People have said that I'm bitter, which I don't really see. They're just projecting what they think I ought to feel, considering the events.” In hindsight, many situations took a black-humored tinge, such as when Bernie Rhodes—the group's larger-than-life manager—reckoned that Vince's actual first name (Gregory) sounded too Americanized. “I really was 'working for the clampdown,' and Bernie had 'complete control',” Vince laughs. “Well, it was a tyranny, with Bernie intimidating and coercing everyone. A real head fuck. But it opened up a big can of worms about the band's integrity, for me, you know, and whether it really matters.”

Long before the Rhodes regime of head-spinning meetings left its mark, Vince maintains that he felt like an outsider in his own band: “The biggest shock, for me, was the discrepancy between the image that I had, and the reality of who these people were.”
“On the one hand, you're represented as a member of the Clash,” he continues. “This is how everyone is perceiving you, when, in reality, I had almost zero control, or any power in what went on, apart from when we played live, or rehearsed in soundchecks. I think that's where we were a band, as a live unit.”


Those feelings deepened in January 1985, when work began on he new album—which, Vince and Pete discovered, had largely been completed by the time they arrived in Munich, Germany. The five-piece band only played on two B-sides (“Do It Now,” “Sex Mad Roar”), leading Vince to comment: “It wasn't really a Clash record, although it had the label, and it's got my picture on the back.”


There would be one more reprieve in the so-called “busking tour” (May 2-17, 1985) of free impromptu acoustic shows in northern Britain (Leeds, Newcastle, Nottingham, York), and Scotland (Edinburgh, Glasgow). Any public place was fair game, from parks, to pubs, shopping centers—even patrons outside the Alarm's own May 7 show, at Leeds University. For Vince, the trip made a welcome contrast to the fragmented, piecemeal recording madness that held sway in Munich. “I can't think of any superstar bands going out, and doing that. It put us in touch with reality, with where we were,” Vince says. “It was just five of us on the road, and that really put Joe in his element. So it affected us all in a good way.” On returning to London, “it was just back to the old story, again,” Vince says, “so whatever we'd achieved, it quickly evaporated.”


Following some conventional festival appearances in Denmark (June 29), France (July 13), and Greece (August 27), Strummer made one final, unsuccessful pitch to Jones about regrouping the old lineup. During the fall of 1985, Strummer called a sitdown at his home, telling the new boys he'd had enough; there wouldn't be a Clash for anyone to kick around anymore.

In later years—depending on his mood, or the interviewer—Joe chalked up the events to an overly-involved Rhodes, or lack of chemistry, compared to the old group. The latter statements rang false to Vince, “because no chemistry was allowed to develop,” he maintains, “and the reality is that he'd given all the control of the band over to Bernie.”
No prizes, then, for guessing this particular story's moral ... “Well, I think that good things happen in freedom. When there's an atmosphere of freedom, then things tend to value the creative [process],” Vince says.

Vince continued playing after the Clash's demise, although his current priorities are promoting Out Of Control, developing his art (“there's something about someone at 47 holding a Les Paul, trying to be 18. It aint too cute. Know what I mean?), and writing more books, too.

And what about those fans who'll never accept Vince as a fully-fledged rocker from Clash City?

“There are hundreds of Clash books out there, blue pills that tell people exactly what they wanna hear—and that's fine,” Vince retorts. "They can be easily found in the religious new age section under 'Church of Joe'. If people think that I'm bitter, or whatever conclusions they wanna make of it, that's their business. The average music fan is so soft, brainwashed and downright pathetic these days anyway that it really makes no difference to me. I don't care. I'd rather they didn't buy my book. They don't deserve it. I'd rather they just bought something to make them happy. You know, like a nice, romantic comedy with a sunset ending!"


Ralph Heibutzki (Chairman Ralph) has chronicled the Clash—in one way, or another—since seeing them at the MSU Auditorium (East Lansing, MI) on May 10, 1984. For another snapshot of his projected book on The Only Band That Matters, please check out “Recording Cut The Crap,” at blackmarketclash.com. (Go to the 1984 tour dates, then click the “Out Of Control Italy” or “Striking Miners' Benefit Gigs” sections.) * * *


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